Space City Medievalism: Reimagining the Middle Ages’ Legacy

Space City

This spring, Dr. Daniel Davies and Marshall Woodward (MFA ’25) received a Centennial Grant from the Medieval Academy of America for their project Space City Medievalism, which will engage both creative writers and scholars of medieval literature on the Middle Ages.

FORWARD sat down with Dr. Davies to learn more about the project, which will span the 2024-25 academic year.

What was the inspiration for Space City Medieval?

The medieval Academy of America is celebrating its centenary in 2025. As part of the celebrations, they’re hosting a series of events that will engage the public on the Middle Ages. In the fall of 2022, I taught a graduate class on medieval poetics that was an amazing experience. I was really astonished by how much interest in medieval poetics there was among the UH English graduate community. Marshall has this terrific project on the Met Cloisters in New York City, for instance, which is all about understanding the legacies of the Middle Ages in the US today and trying to find ways to make that legacy visible and find better ways of engaging with it. I saw the MAA call for proposals and thought “we need to do something in Houston.” So I got together with Marshall, and we figured that we would continue the work that we'd started in the graduate class of getting poets to create poetry that is in dialogue with the Middle Ages.

Will there be events involved?

After we’ve put out a call for participants among the UH community and people have signed on to the project, we will run three workshops in which specialists in medieval literature and culture will present to the group different ways of engaging with the Middle Ages. This will all culminate in April 2025 with a public reading, in which the program participants and some special guests will read their poetry—poetry written as a result of these workshops—which is in dialogue with medieval literature. We’re also going to bring a keynote speaker. Someone, hopefully, who in their practice and in their work has engaged with medieval literature in creative and expansive ways.

What can creative writers gain from engaging with these texts?

Part of the design of the program is the idea that medievalist poetry produced in Houston is not going to look like medievalist poetry produced elsewhere. We're keen to draw on the multilingual and transnational identity of Houston to rethink some of the assumptions that go into poetry that engages with the Middle Ages. Medievalists at the moment are grappling with ways to make medieval studies move beyond its Eurocentric nationalist origins and medievalism, which is the study of the Middle Ages after the Middle Ages, is one key way to do that. One major question I'm always asking is, what can English do that other disciplines in the academy can't? And what can poetry do that other things can't? I think one of these things is reinvent history and reimagine history. For poets practicing today, studying medieval poetics is useful and important because it’s an encounter with an enormous corpus of poetic theory that is very strange when we think about our understanding of poetic history today, for example, around concepts of lyric. In the Middle Ages they're thinking about lyric a lot, but our understanding today is much narrower, centered on ancient Greek and modern lyric. We miss out the thousand years in between—and that thousand years is difficult in challenging but productive ways. Often medieval poetics is yoked to antisemitism, misogyny, Christian supremacy, and otherwise oppressive ideologies. It can be alienating to encounter, but at the same time, it is important to acknowledge because it forces us to rethink the history of poetic practice. Beyond this, engaging with medieval literature is also a way of grasping that the way things are now is not the way that they have to be. Binaries that today are presented as objective fact are much more fluid in the Middle Ages. And that's where poetry comes in. Poetry, which always reaches across time, enables us to bring past, present, and future together in new ways.

How does the project intersect with your own research, teaching, or other public facing initiatives?

I'm a big believer in public education. I think it's incredibly important for us to find ways to take our expertise and specialism beyond the walls of the academy in ways that aren’t just unidirectional—sharing expertise—but rather finding ways to be more collaborative and work in the broader community. It's one of the things that I think defines a lot of the work that gets done in Houston; it’s also one of the things that I love most about being here. My research touches upon poetics and is engaged with it through people like Geoffrey Chaucer. But my teaching trajectory here has challenged me in ways I didn't anticipate to find more of a niche in teaching premodern poetics. Every week something will come up in discussion that sparks a new idea and hopefully takes me in new directions in my research.

Closing thoughts?

There is an interest in rethinking what the Middle Ages is, which is an important political and intellectual task, and at the same time there is incredible energy about engaging with medieval literature and medieval culture. Through Space City Medievalism, we’re trying to bring those two things together: to bring them into contact, to see what creative activities emerge. Poets can see things that literary scholars can't. Poets can see things that professional medievalists can't, and even beyond that, I think poets who are engaging with medieval literature for perhaps the first time are not as encumbered by the things that people with, say, a PhD in medieval literature are. Playfulness and freedom can be a catalyzing force for creative work in ways that challenge both the poets themselves and also scholars of medieval literature. At the same time, medievalists can bring new perspectives to the contemporary practice of poets. As medievalists we work on material which is a thousand years old, where the people who wrote the poetry are long gone. But the one thing about poetry is it never dies, it's always living. And I think the way to give voice to the past is through this poetry formed in dialogue with the Middle Ages.